Sister reflects on Ritchie Valens’ life, legacy

Connie Valens poses with a poster of her brother, Ritchie, at Red Rock Center for the Arts in Fairmont on Tuesday.

Connie Valens, younger sister of rock and roll legend Ritchie Valens visited Red Rock Center for the Arts in Fairmont on Tuesday to discuss her brother, and how losing him affected her family.

Ritchie Valens had several hits in his eight-month career. Notable songs include “La Bamba” and “Donna.”

On Feb. 3, 1959, also known as “The Day the Music Died,” Valens, Buddy Holly and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richards, died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. Valens was just 17 years old.

Originally from Los Angeles, Valens was the second of five children, including brother Bob Morales, younger sisters Connie and Irma, and younger brother Mario Ramirez. Connie, who was 8 years old at the time of the crash, now lives in Okoboji, Iowa.

“2019 marks 60 years since the day the music died,” she noted.

Connie talked about what it was like growing up as Ritchie’s sister. She said he was really like a father figure to her since there was a nine-year age difference.

“He was a prolific song-writer. He wrote 22 of the 33 songs he recorded at 17,” Connie shared, pointing out that at the time it was an unheard of accomplishment for someone that young.

She mentioned some of Ritchie’s top hits. She recalled being in the car with her mother when his song “Come On, Let’s Go” came on.

She also shared another fun fact about one her brother’s top hits.

“‘Donna’ is real. We stay in touch with her,” she said of Ritchie’s love interest, for whom he wrote the song.

“That was his first love,” Connie said.

She then turned to Ritchie’s death.

“[It] was devastating for mama. He was only 17,” she said.

Connie said that what really drove Ritchie was his desire to get a house for his mother and the family. Unfortunately, Connie said they owned the house for 30 years but their mother maybe lived there for seven because it was too hard for her to be there.

She said the making of the 1987 movie “La Bamba” brought the family closer and allowed them each to share each other’s pain, because they were not able to do that at the time of Ritchie’s death in 1959.

“‘La Bamba’ did something special; it brought us back together. We were able to come from our hiding places where we had hidden our wounds, and talk about it,” Connie said.

“Mama told [the director], ‘I’m going to trust you with my son’s story, but I want it to be told like we tell you. We know that Hollywood does things their way, but I want you to show my son’s life for who he was and not what you want to make him be,’ and they were true to their word. They did a really good job,” Connie said of the film.

Connie said the family had never really discussed Ritchie or the accident after it happened. Connie spoke about a time in her 30s when her mother suggested putting on one of Ritchie’s albums. Connie did, but then began crying.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t listen to his music.’ I was still holding onto the hope that maybe he really wasn’t gone. Maybe some nice Iowan picked him up from the ice and he didn’t remember who he was. That’s what I told myself,” Connie admitted.

She discussed what it was like the first time she came to Iowa, in 1988, for a Ritchie Valens memorial at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, where Ritchie boarded the plane that crashed.

“I was waiting for him to walk around the corner. Somewhere deep inside my mind, I was waiting for him to come around the corner and ask where I’ve been,” Connie said.

She said she cried inside the Surf Ballroom knowing it was the last place Ritchie had been alive.

Having grown up in California, Connie shared how she came to live in Iowa.

“What brought me to Iowa was a time for a change,” she said. “It’s funny; I never fit into California. I can’t be somewhere and not make eye contact and smile at people I pass. They’re like zombies there. I didn’t fit, but I fit here. People here really care about each other.”

Connie said she loves hearing stories from people who say Ritchie inspired them to start playing an instrument or to start singing.

“All because a 17-year-old-boy, who was a little overweight, who had acne, and who came from the wrong side of the tracks, had a dream,” Connie said.

Though Ritchie has been gone for 60 years now, he has achieved a lot posthumously.

In 1990, he got a start on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2001, Ritchie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. His entire family was there for the experience and met many famous musicians.

Connie said that last year the family was together in Pacoima, where they grew up, for the dedication of the Ritchie Valens Memorial Highway.

A book came out this year about Ritchie Valens. More information is available on the website www.ritchievalens.com and on Amazon.com

Ritchie is considered the first Latino to successfully cross over into mainstreams rock. He is credited with inspiring many other musicians of Mexican heritage, including Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys and Carlos Santana.

“Our family is blessed to be a part of the Ritchie Valens phenomenon,” Connie said. “He was only 17. He was a performer-songwriter. He used his dreams to end the cycle of poverty for our family. In his short eight-month career, he produced a lot of great hits.”